CNBC-TV18 Column : Trolls of Trollistan

I wrote on the Trolls of Trollistan for CNBC-TV 18

On Valentine’s day, a suicide bomber rammed his car into a bus ferrying Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans and murdered 40 soldiers. The terrorist organisation based in Pakistan, Jaish-e-Mohammed, claimed responsibility. While 40 families mourned the loss of their loved one, and the nation stood overwhelmed with shock, grief and the desire to do something for the families left behind; the usual suspects were in action trying to fuel the flames of hate in India.  Trolls tried to take over the narrative of war and peace, and labelled those who went against their views as traitors.

The political response to the attack has been surprisingly mature and muted. Both the government and the oppositions have been relatively restrained. However, the same has not been true of our keyboard and studio warriors. The demand for war, and the demand for blood has been relentless. It began on the day of the bombing, with the circulation of the explosion with the remains of the soldiers blown up. Before the carnage could be cleared, the bodies gathered for the funeral, and the families notified that their loved ones are never coming home – social media began circulating pictures of the devastated bodies, with calls for revenge.  Those who objected to the pictures were called cowards, and this is the mildest form of reprimand that was given. It was almost like social media handles wanted to start a war by inflaming the audience to do something. And, that something was violence.

That call for violence spilled over into different pockets in India. And the repercussions were as expected. Kashmiri students and business people began receiving threats, and there was panic about their safety. From across India there were reports of students facing physical threats and being told to get out and go back to where they came from. And, while we had people making threats, and mobs threatening violence, we also had a real world response that was heartening.  Thousands of people on social media offered to open their homes to students who might be feeling threatened. The CRPF, that faced such a tragic loss, put out messages of support for Indian students from Kashmir. The law and order mechanism took over, restoring relative calm.  But, the damage to the fabric of India, was done. One more rent in the tapestry that weaves us together.

But, the sad part of modern media is that strife leads to ratings. The more angry you are, the more vicious you are, the more likely people are to watch you. A leading news channel re-created the incident of a man with his face covered, driving a jeep and ramming into a bus, to promote a TV show on their channel. Other TV channels jumped on the rumour band wagon to put out unverified news. Yet another called in Pakistani generals to defend their nation. Social media did not just discuss these, highly motivated groups put out fake information on the aftermath of the Pulwama attack – trying to create hate.   Telephone numbers of journalists were made public, leading to death threats, rape threats, and pictures of private male parts being targeted at them. The Trolls of Trolistan were in full swing to intimidate those they disliked.

The question is how do you deal with trolls, especially those who hide under the cloak of anonymity. The answer is simpler than you may think. It is twofold. The first is, Ignore them. Mostly trolls get amplified by the response of ordinary citizens – from across the spectrum – who are outraged at the deplorable behaviour of the abusers. The more we pay attention to the violence contained in their tweets or whastsapp forwards, the more we attract others of the same mindset to the haters. The second part of the answer is police action. This is not to say that the internet should be censored. It is more that when trolls  issue death threats or rape threats, or spread hate – they are breaking real world laws. And, it is possible to track them down and prosecute them. And, that is what needs to be done. Systematically and ruthlessly. Without fear or favour. Without wondering who their political paymasters are.

Trolls are a monster that have grown beyond the control of political players who they support. They are a force unto themselves. And, the only way to stem the rot is to ensure those who spread lies, hate, and threats are punished and sent to jail. That will stop trolling far more than any restrictions that twitter of facebook may bring into play.

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